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Beverages of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries – Part 1 - Tea

"There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee, than most young ladies are willing to believe. If those decoctions are made at the table, which is by far the best way, they require experience, judgment, and exactness...I have often seen persons pour out tea, who, not being at all aware that the first cup is the weakest, and that the tea grows stronger as you proceed, have bestowed the poorest cup upon the greatest stranger, and given the strongest to a very young member of the family who would have been better without any. Where several cups of equal strength are wanted, you should pour a little into each, and then go back, inverting the order as you fill them up, and then the strength will be apportioned properly."

- Eliza Ware Farrar in "The Young Lady's Friend" (1837)

Civilization has produced but three important non-alcoholic beverages – the extract of the tea leaf, the extract of the coffee bean, and the extract of the cacao bean. These extracts of leaves and beans are the source of the world’s favorite beverages with tea leading in the total amount of beverage consumed, coffee second, and cocoa third. Tea, coffee, and cocoa are stimulants to the heart, brain, and kidneys. In today’s post, we are going to look at the history and methods of making the most popular of these beverages: Tea.

The Tea Plant, Camellia Sinensis
The Tea Plant, Camellia Sinensis

What is Tea?

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is an evergreen shrub native to East Asia and the probable center of origin of tea is near the source of the Irrawaddy River from where it spread out fanwise into southeast China, Southeast Asia and India. Thus, the natural home of the tea plant is within the comparatively small fan-shaped area between Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, in India along the Myanmar (Burma) frontier in the west, through China as far as the Zhejiang Province (near Shanghai) in the east, and from this line southwards through the hills to Burma and Thailand to Vietnam. Tea is also rarely made from the leaves of Camellia taliensis. Camellia taliensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are also used to produce tea. It is an important wild relative to the cultivated tea plant Camellia sinensis. It also belongs to the same section Thea as C. sinensis. Camellia taliensis is locally used to make white tea, black tea, and pu'er tea.

The History of Tea

While there are legends of the origin of tea dating back to around 2737 B.C., people in ancient East Asia ate tea for centuries, even millennia, before ever consuming it as a beverage. They would nibble on the leaves raw, add them to soups or greens, or ferment them and chew it in the same way tobacco is chewed. The earliest known physical evidence of tea was discovered in 2016 in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi'an, indicating that tea from the genus Camellia was drunk by Han dynasty emperors as early as the second century BC.

The Han dynasty work, "The Contract for a Youth", written by Wang Bao in 59 BC, holds the first known reference to boiling tea. Among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, the contract states that "he shall boil tea and fill the utensils" and "he shall buy tea at Wuyang". The first record of tea cultivation is also dated to this period, during which tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain near Chengdu. Another early credible record of drinking tea dates to 350 A.D. in a medical text written by Chinese physician Hua Tuo who stated, "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better." It was popularized as a recreational drink during the Chinese Tang dynasty, and tea drinking subsequently spread to other East Asian countries.

Tang Dynesty Tea Drinking
Tang Dynesty Tea Drinking

Tea drinking may have begun in the region of Yunnan, where it was used for medicinal purposes. It is also believed that in Sichuan, people began to boil tea leaves for consumption into a concentrated liquid without the addition of other leaves or herbs, thereby using tea as a bitter yet stimulating drink, rather than as a medicinal concoction. Before the Tang dynasty, however, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese (Sichuan/Yunnan) practice. Tea was held in contempt by the Northern dynasties’ aristocrats, who described it as inferior to yogurt. It became widely popular during the Tang dynasty, during which it spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Types of Tea

Through the centuries, a variety of techniques for processing tea, and several different forms of tea, were developed. During the Tang dynasty, tea was steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake form, while in the Song dynasty, loose-leaf tea was developed and became popular. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unoxidized tea leaves were first stirred in a hot dry pan, then rolled and air-dried, a process that stops the oxidation process that would have turned the leaves dark, thereby allowing tea to remain green (gunpowder green tea). In the 15th century, oolong tea, in which the leaves are allowed to partially oxidize before being heated in the pan, was developed. Western tastes, however, favored the fully oxidized black tea, and the leaves were allowed to oxidize further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently careless practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, which yielded a different flavor. Tea is generally divided into categories based on how it is processed. At least six distinct types are produced:

  • White: wilted and unoxidized.

  • Yellow: unwilted and unoxidized but allowed to yellow.

  • Green: unwilted and unoxidized.

  • Oolong: wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized.

  • Black: wilted, sometimes crushed, and fully oxidized.

  • Post-fermented (Dark): green tea that has been allowed to ferment/compost (called Pu'er if from the Yunnan district of South-Western China.

Chinese Tea Plantation
Chinese Tea Plantation

The cake, or brick tea, was primarily made for trade in Mongolia and Central Asia and was not imported by the East India Company to England or the Colonies. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, there were a few tea bricks in British hands, mainly as curiosities in collections such as the Museum of Asiatic Society. But brick tea was certainly not chopped and placed in the fine wooden tea caddies of polite London homes or those of North America. In Boston, accounts of the tea rebellion include stories of tea leaves piled like haystacks alongside the ships in Griffin’s Wharf while men used rakes to plow the leaves into the low tide of Boston Harbor.

Arab Tea Drinking
Arab Tea Drinking

Tea Spreads Outside of Asia

The first account of tea reached the Arabs around 850 AD, when green tea seems to have reached the region via the caravan trade of the Silk Road, from China through Central Asia to the Middle East. Tea in Europe began with the opening of trade with China. The first recorded mention of tea was by a Venetian merchant in the 1550s, a time when Venice was a great commercial center, and its merchants and scholars were alert for any knowledge that would add to their wealth and influence.

Portuguese Colony of Macao
Portuguese Colony of Macao

In 1516, the first Portuguese ship reached China, and, after several years, the Chinese allowed them to set up a trading post at Macao. Soon thereafter Portuguese Jesuit missionaries became familiar with the drink and sent accounts of it to Europe. When the Dutch East Company began using the Portuguese sea route to China, it arranged the very first shipment of tea to Europe in 1610. While these early shipments were of green tea, Bohea soon replaced it as the tea of choice. This resulted in a craze for tea that spread across Europe in the seventeenth century.

Members of the Court of Louis XIV Drinking Tea
Members of the Court of Louis XIV Drinking Tea

Tea took over the court of Louis XIV, where it was sipped from exquisite porcelain – the Sun King himself was an enthusiastic tea drinker, and aristocratic ladies in France developed a penchant for tea with milk. Because of its close association with the royalty in France, tea would fall into disfavor after the French Revolution. In Germany, tea also became a favorite refreshment, especially in the East Freesia region, and its strong black tea with cream, prepared with a ritual exactitude, is still celebrated among tea lovers. In Holland, the main importer of tea from China, the exciting new brew became popular across the whole of society and Dutch taverns served the drink from their newly invented ‘tea set.’

The first teas used in England, beginning in 1657, came from Dutch sources. This did not deter the English public however, and tea became a fixture in England’s coffee houses. On 25 September 1660, Samuel Pepys was sufficiently impressed to write in his diary that he had drunk a cup of tea for the first time. The enthusiasm for tea that the English soon developed was inspired by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II. On arriving in England for her marriage in 1662, she asked for a restorative cup of tea and her hosts, to their embarrassment, could only muster a jug of ale.

English Family Having Their Morning Tea
English Family Having Their Morning Tea

Tea was heavily taxed (by more than 100% of its value) in Britain and her colonies until the 1780s, which led to the rise of a vast smuggling network. These tea gangsters were the mafia of their day, including the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of the 1740s, who with guns raided a Custom House in Dorset, which had impounded a shipment, and rode off triumphantly with the tea chests strapped to their horses.

Peter Stuyvesant
Peter Stuyvesant

Tea in America

The history of tea in America began in the early 1600s when the Dutch claimed New Amsterdam as a colony. Governor Peter Stuyvesant brought teat to New Amsterdam sometime in the 1640s via the Dutch East India Company. Then, in 1664, Stuyvesant surrendered New Amsterdam to the English and New Amsterdam became New York. By the early 1700s tea drinking became more widespread as those emigrating from England had already developed a taste for tea and its popularity really took off.

Tea was a lucrative business, and it came to the American Colonies via the British East India Company from China. In 1773, the British Parliament passed the tea act, which granted the British Eat India Company a monopoly on the import of tea into the American colonies. It was the British government’s exorbitant tax on tea that provoked the famous “Boston Tea Party” when American colonists stormed a fleet of British ships at Boston Harbor and threw three hundred forty-two chests of tea, about 92,000 pounds of tea leaves belonging to the British East India Company, overboard. About two-thirds of this tea was Black tea and the rest various green teas. – the opening salvo of what became the American War of Independence. With the outbreak of the war, tea drinking became unpatriotic. Boycotts of tea led to an increase in consumption of other beverages, such as coffee or herbal teas infused with peppermint, sage, or dandelions.

The Boston "Tea Party"
The Boston "Tea Party"

Once imported tea became politicized as a drink fit only for loyalists to the Crown, it dropped out of fashion. Tea drinkers were criticized by their neighbors, and a new age of coffee drinking dawned. Grown in the New World, coffee did not stand for British economic interests. It was hot and highly caffeinated, and it kept much of its popularity even after the Revolution, when tea drinking no longer made one a pariah.

With the end of the war, and American independence, many Americans happily returned to tea drinking, just as they happily returned to purchasing British manufactured goods. Middle-class families embraced the ritual of afternoon tea in the 19th century, demonstrating the domestic virtues associated with genteel tea service. Coffee houses thrived in East Coast ports, where merchants and other (mostly) men met to discuss business and had its place as a pick-me-up. It should be noted that the former French and Spanish colonies also maintained a coffee-drinking tradition. But tea upheld its position in American culinary culture, just as Americans continued to look to Britain for other cultural trends such as fashion, literature, landscaping, and art.

We hope you enjoyed today’s post on Tea, its history, and its prominence in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more beverages of the early United States and encourage you to try some of the diverse types of tea. Please join us again in two weeks when we will once again look at Beverages of the 18th and early 19th century, this time focusing on coffee.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


A Tea Dealer. (1827). Tsiology; A Discourse on Tea. London: Wm. Walker.

Farrar, E. W. (1837). The Young Lady's Friend. London: John W. Parker.

Mair, V. H., & Hoh, E. (2009). The True History of Tea. New York: Thames & Hudson.

O'Connell, L. (2015). The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

Ukers, W. H. (1935). All About Tea, Vol 1. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company.

Walsh, J. M. (1892). Tea, Its History and Mystery. Philadelphia: Joseph M. Walsh.


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